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Language of the Deaf Community

In a message dated 9/8/2007 8:09:42 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, an ASL teacher writes:
Dear Dr. Bill,

When I'm hanging out with my Deaf friends or interpreting for Deaf clients, I find that the 90% of them sign WAY more "Pidgin" than ASL as far as grammar rules and mouthing words, etc.  I know this is common when there are a lot of hearing people around, but I've been at parties where I was one of 2 hearing people there and as I observed conversations, I saw SO many of them voicing while signing in private conversations to other Deaf people and in general following English sentence structures.  Of COURSE there were tons of ASL features (tons of facial expressions, gestures, mouth morphemes, etc) but it's just totally different than I've been formally taught in any of my classes.  I know that's probably very similar to how conversational English and "by the book" English are totally different, but I struggle with what to teach in my classes because I have students who want to become interpreters and I don't want to teach them only conversational sign.  Do you understand my dilemma?  Do you have any suggestions?

-- "Cindy"  (Name on File)

Dear ASL Instructor,

There is a difference between "the language of the Deaf Community" and American Sign Language (ASL).

The moment certain people read that statement they are likely to pull out their knives and start advancing on me--but stay with me and I'll explain what I mean.

Let me share with you an analogy.

Do you like chicken soup?

Suppose you were to teach a student how to make chicken soup. What if you told her, fill a pot with water, put in some chicken meat and boil it. 

Are you done?  Do you have chicken soup?

Obviously there is much more to chicken soup than just chicken in hot water.
In addition to the chicken we will certainly want some vegetables (such as carrots, celery, and onions), herbs (sage, thyme, bay leaf and parsley), plus salt and usually some pasta or rice.

And while it is true that chicken is the key or most important ingredient in chicken soup, it is certainly not the only ingredient--and in most cases it isn't even the most frequently occurring ingredient.  Chicken soup is mainly noodles and water.

There is much more to the "Language of the Deaf Community" than just the form of American Sign Language cited in textbooks.
The citation form of ASL is the key or most important ingredient in the Language of the Deaf Community, but it certainly isn't the only ingredient, and -- as you've observed -- at many Deaf events "academic ASL" (note the quotes and the use of the word academic) isn't even the most frequently used ingredient.  The language of the Deaf Community is a soup. It is a continuum of ingredients. In our classes we focus on the meat of the soup (ASL) not because it is the most frequently occurring ingredient, but because it is the key or most important ingredient. It is the ingredient that adds the most flavor and is what differentiates our soup (language) from the soup of other cultures.

It is important to teach our students that the language of the Deaf Community is a continuum of communication methods and that we will be focusing on the area of that continuum known as ASL.  We are choosing to do so because ASL is the area on the continuum that is at the heart of the (American) Deaf Community.  Of all the communication styles in the continuum, ASL is the one that has all the characteristics and features of an autonomous language and thus is able to fill foreign language requirements at many high schools and colleges.


Dr. Bill
William Vicars, Ed.D.


An ASL Instructor shared with me her observation that the type of signing that is done by 90% of her Deaf friends and clients is not the type of signing that is taught in many "ASL" classes.

So, who is "right?" How do we decide what ASL "really" consists of? Do we go with 90% of the Deaf community, or a handful of Ph.D.s who write books?
There are long lists of "rules" prescribed by ASL teachers that result in a type of signing that is definitely "not" Signed English, but then again, it isn't the type of signing done by 90% of the Deaf community either. 

In considering this topic I want you to also think about a "bell curve."

The leading edge of that curve represents the formal, carefully constructed ASL examples you find in many ASL textbooks.  The hump of the curve represents the type of signing done by the majority of the Deaf Community in everyday communication.  The trailing edge of the curve represents the invented Manual English systems as taught in textbooks.
Dr. Bill

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("Language of the Deaf Community" Graphic Copyright G. Vicars 2007)
(Permission granted when appropriately cited: " 2007, Used by permission.")

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